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Tips for parents

There are no hard and fast rules about how you should communicate with your child about relationships, sexuality and growing up. Each child is different and each family is different.

If you speak openly and honestly about sexuality issues, it is likely your child will too. At times, you may feel embarrassed, and there will be some things you find difficult to discuss. Don’t let it put you off; this is completely normal and to be expected.

If your child is old enough to notice your embarrassment, just explain that you find it a bit awkward to talk about some things, but it’s important to do it. The more you do it, the easier it will get.

Tips for communicating with your child about relationships, sexuality and growing up

Here are some general pointers.

Start early and keep it simple and honest

Talk to your child about their developing sexuality from the time they are very young. This will help to make these conversations normal and build a healthy habit of communicating about sexuality and other sensitive issues. Simple but honest answers work best for young children. If they want to hear more, they’ll ask more questions. Don’t worry if you over-explain. If it’s beyond the child’s interest and understanding, it will generally go over their heads.

Layer, don’t load

It’s not a one-off performance. You will get many chances to have these conversations, so don’t try to fit everything in at once. As your child’s interest and understanding develop with age, it is important to revisit topics as you go along. Deal with what is relevant for your child and use the teachable moments that arise in everyday life to start a conversation. For example, a pregnancy or new baby in the family, or a relationship or sexuality issue in a TV programme or in the media, will give you an opportunity to talk.

Teach the facts, but go further: Talk to your child about your opinions and beliefs about all aspects of sexuality, including what makes for healthy relationships.

Be a tellable parent: Really listen to what your child is saying to you about their life and about their joys, concerns and worries. They will do this through their words and actions. Try to listen without judgement.

Be an askable parent

Through your words and tone, welcome your child’s curiosity. Ask gentle questions to see what your child already knows, before adding some new information. Don’t assume that they know things because they use certain words. If you don’t have the answer to your child’s question, it’s OK to say that you don’t know but will find out. However, make sure you do.

Teach body ownership

Impress on your child that their body is their own and they don’t have to let anyone touch it in a way that is unsafe and/or unwanted. They must also learn that other people have similar rights. This is the beginning of giving a child control over their body and teaching them about consent.

Answering awkward question

Don’t panic

When asked an awkward question, try not to answer in a panic. Instead, pause, take a deep breath and then keep your answer to the point. Start with the simplest explanation and be guided by your child’s response. 

It’s okay not to know. If you are unsure of the answer, be honest and say something like, “I am not sure but I am glad you asked me that. I will have to think about it and get back to you” or “I am not sure. Maybe we can look it up together.” There is value in modelling both that it’s okay to not know things and in shared learning.

Answer as soon as possible

Try to respond to your child’s question at the time they ask. The level of detail should depend on their age and how mature they are. If they ask a question at an awkward time, you could say, “We can’t really talk about this at the minute but we’ll have a chat about it later”.

Don’t assume

Try not to jump to panicked conclusions about why they are asking a question. In most cases it will just be your child’s natural curiosity responding to something that has come up during their day.

Clarify the question

Rather than diving straight into an explanation, check out what your child is asking and their understanding of your response by:

  • saying something like, “That’s interesting. What do you know about that?”
  • checking the context in which the word came up - “I am interested in where you heard this word. Can you tell me a little bit about it?”
  • getting the child’s perspective. Ask “What do you think about . . .?” Listen carefully to the answer
  • sharing your thoughts - “This is what I think . . . others may think differently”
  • asking if you’ve answered their question and checking their understanding. “Does that answer your question?”, “What do you think about what I’ve said?”, “ Is there anything else you’d like to ask?"

Sometimes, it may be better to let the child talk without asking too many questions. By listening to the uninterrupted story, you may be able to assess your child’s interest and understanding and then decide your response.

Believe in yourself. If your child is asking you questions it’s a sign of their trust that you will be an askable parent. Trust yourself and your relationship with your child. If you build up the habit of talking to your child about sensitive topics from the start, they are more likely to continue to discuss these issues with you as they get older.